Arsenal v Stoke City, April 1st 2018
Arsene Wenger’s Reign (1996-2018)
Canadian friends were surprised when I told them how long Arsene Wenger had managed Arsenal Football Club. They said a coach would never stay 22 years in the same job in North American sport. But some female sports fans called him ‘handsome’ and ‘the gentleman’. Some disliked Arsenal but liked Arsene.
Arsene Wenger once half-jokingly warned the club’s supporters. He said they should get used to sausages because they wouldn’t always be eating caviar. The team wouldn’t always come out on top. He said later that football was ‘about more than just buying the best players’. This was possibly a reference to the Russian-wealth-supported Chelsea. Or maybe the Dubai-owned Manchester City. (Thaksin Shinawatra, wanted for human rights abuses in his native Indonesia, once chaired the latter club.) Wenger liked to develop young talent and give his players the freedom to express themselves. When taunted by Chelsea or Manchester United fans, I would cite ‘the Arsenal way’. ‘They’ were managed by dislikeable bullies like Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho. ‘We’ had Arsene Wenger.
Wenger’s Arsenal team finished in the top four of the Premier League for 20 consecutive seasons. They won the Premier League 3 times and the FA Cup (the main domestic knock-out competition) 7 times. In 2016-17 they finished fifth and the following season sixth. At the end of the 2017/18 campaign Wenger resigned.
In his time he was definitely a bad loser, and the Ivorian striker Gervinho complained about his lack of chances in the team. He was perhaps a bit harsh on his goalkeepers, dropping them for being ‘mentally not fresh’. But defender Martin Keown has spoken of how Wenger ‘loved’ his players. Journalists have spoken appreciatively about his willingness to answer questions on any subject, such as the 2016 Paris attacks, compassionately and articulately.
Some would say football has undergone gentrification. Many of us fans purport to know better than the manager on team selection and strategy, Some of us have become would-be accountants and business administrators, concerned with club profits. Some of us rejoice that Wenger’s benevolent dictatorship is over and the modern business structure is here. There is a Head of Recruitment, a Head of Performance and a Director of Football. The man who used to be ‘manager’ is now ‘head coach’. The ownership of the club was once passed down through generations of the Hill-Wood family. It is now about to become wholly owned by the US-based multi-franchise-owning Kroenke Sports & Entertainment. Meanwhile, Ivan Gazidis, the CEO who effected the club’s structural changes, is leaving to take up a position at AC Milan. So much for finishing what you started.
Arsenal are no longer a team that look like finishing in the top four. This was the case in Arsene Wenger’s last 2 seasons and still is under the admittedly likeable and suitable Unai Emery. Maybe some supporters will see what an achievement it was to maintain that status for so long. But why is being in the top four so important anyway? It seems that it is valued not because of the chance of competing in the Champions League. Arsenal have very little chance of winning this. What we value is the increased revenue that being in that competition brings. So we can ‘buy the best players’.
When I watch Arsenal now and take in other fans’ views, I find myself not really caring how they play. I can’t point to a different way of doing things. The club is being reshaped in the image of a corporation, with short-term employees and a faraway, morally suspect owner. It’s just about winning games and a healthy balance sheet.